When other girls my age were developing breasts, I was developing bunions. At the age of 12, I was a late bloomer everywhere but my feet, which had started to look like a grandmother’s. My grandmother’s, specifically — both of them had serious bunions that they presumably passed on to me. Except that while theirs troubled them in old age, here I was walking through the halls of my middle school with misshapen feet.
Annoying as this was, I didn’t let it stop me from trying out high heels. I got my first pair in eighth grade, at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, a mall somewhat famous in the ’80s and ’90s for its popularity with Valley girls, which I technically was. (It’s not the mall featured in Clueless, though — that’s Fashion Square, where I got my first bra.) Despite my nascent bunions, the shoes didn’t hurt, they made me feel pretty and grown-up, and I continued wearing heels pretty regularly throughout high school.
Then came the incident. Senior year of college, rushing to make an appointment with a professor, I dropped a large, heavy drawer full of pants directly onto my left foot. It hurt, but I walked it off. Until a few weeks later, when I had to go to a student awards ceremony. I was receiving something called the Golden Medal, which was not made of gold but rather named after a guy named Robert Golden. I put on a pair of stack-heel boots and, right around the time I was supposed to be accepting my medal, the excruciating pain began.
My feet, in flats.
I figured it would let up when I took off the boots, but it didn’t. The following day, I could barely walk. I went to a doctor, who squeezed my foot, shrugged, and recommended that I tape the toes together and take a bunch of Advil. Following this regimen enabled me to walk again, but it took about a week.
To prevent future weeks of near-immobility, I took several steps. I stopped moving the toes of my left foot (a preventative measure I still take, and which has made certain yoga poses difficult) and I stopped wearing heels. It seemed like maybe I should get a second opinion, but since the no-heels-no-moving strategy seemed to be working okay, I delayed. Finally, years later, a doctor told me I had a bone spur, possibly caused by the drawer incident. It wasn’t clear whether the existing bunion had exacerbated the problem, but since bunions often cause pain on their own, it seemed likely. By that time I was in grad school in Iowa, where I had to wear snow boots six months out of the year. I pretty much forgot about heels.
Then I moved to New York and took a job where I sometimes had to dress up in public. I managed to upgrade my grad-school wardrobe with a couple of reasonably nice dresses, but I feared my feet gave me away. “This is a country bumpkin,” I imagined my flats crying out, “who doesn’t know how to dress up.” And I was jealous. New York is full of beautiful women wearing beautiful shoes, and every time I saw a lady walking in front of me in lovely heels (which, let’s face it, do make your calves look really good) I felt a pang. I still do.
There was another issue: I worry still that my heel aversion will be interpreted as a political statement, when really it’s just that I want to be able to walk the next day. I’d long identified myself as a feminist, and my job now entailed doing so, repeatedly, on the internet. Total strangers began accosting me at parties, trying to convince me that rape victims were asking for it. I quickly tired of discussing my politics when I was off the clock, and in any case, I’ve never been someone who thinks feminists can’t wear pretty clothes. My mom raised me never to feel bad about dressing well, or dressing sexily, in part because, as a young liberal in the seventies, she felt pressure to wear overalls all the time.
I’ve considered surgery to fix this problem — bunions can be removed, as can bone spurs. But bunions can grow back, and WebMD tells me that one common reason patients are dissatisfied after surgery is that they can’t wear high-heeled shoes.
Until science develops some sort of magic, risk-free bunion cure, I’m pretty much stuck with the solution I’ve arrived at. Which is: invest in pretty flats and oxfords, and explain succinctly when the subject comes up. I just want people to know that I don’t think heels are anti-feminist, and I’d definitely wear them if I could. And when I make a statement, I’ll make it with my writing, not my feet.